Dunaliella bardawil, a single-celled alga so resistant to salt and sunlight that it can even survive in the hostile environment of the Dead Sea, is turning out to be a very versatile little creature.
It was Weizmann Institute scientists -- the late Prof. Mordhay Avron and his co-worker Dr. Ami Ben-Amotz -- who studied Dunaliella and learned to exploit the hardy alga's ability to produce vast quantities of beta-carotene, a natural pigment and source of Vitamin A. The Weizmann findings became the basis of a thriving export industry. Nature Beta Technologies, an algae-growing enterprise in Eilat owned by the Japanese company Nikken Sohonsha, produces beta-carotene-rich Dunaliella powder and other products that are sold as health food in Japan. And now two research teams headed by Profs. Ada Zamir and Uri Pick of the Biochemistry Department are exploring methods to boost and expand the alga's productivity in order to further increase its commercial value.
But beta-carotene is just one of the assets of this lowly plant. According to the scientists, Dunaliella's unique survival strategies could make this alga a rich source of other high-value biochemical items. Furthermore, they believe that Dunaliella has the potential to become a vehicle for creating "smart" genetically engineered substances for biotechnology industries. Because its high-salt environment is nearly sterile, mass production of the alga and its potential products holds little risk of contamination. Once the method is perfected, Dunaliella could serve as an economical natural "factory" for an unlimited number of genetically engineered products, including vaccines, drugs and hormones.
As a first step in mining the alga for useful biochemicals, the Weizmann researchers have isolated an enzyme and a transport protein in Dunaliella that are capable of carrying out a variety of biochemical processes under high salt and temperature conditions.
The alga research is being done within the framework of the Magnet Consortium, a program of Israel's Industry and Trade Ministry aimed at building partnerships between Israel's scientific research institutes and high-tech industries.
The Magnet Algae Consortium is made up of the Weizmann Institute of Science and Nature Beta Technologies (the Eilat-based company) collaborating on Dunaliella, and Israel's Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute, working together with a kibbutz and a chemical firm on a related alga project.
"We are all investigating basic issues regarding the biology of algae," says Prof. Zamir. "But belonging to the Consortium has made the scientists more aware of the practical economic implications of our work, so that what we do has two aspects -- basic and applied."